America is a great country, but it presents a serious problem for school reformers. The problem is that it is honkin’ humongous, with strong traditions of state and local autonomy. Reforming even a single state is a huge task, because most of our states are the size of entire small nations. (My small state, Maryland, has about the population of Scotland, for example.) And states, districts, schools, and teachers are all kind of prickly about taking orders from anyone further up the hierarchy.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) puts a particular emphasis on state and local control, a relief after the emphasis on mandates from Washington central to No Child Left Behind. ESSA also contains a welcome focus on using evidence-based programs.
ESSA is new, and state, district and school leaders are just now grappling with how to use the ESSA opportunities to move forward on a large scale. How can states hope to bring about major change on a large scale, working one school at a time?
The solution to this problem might be for states, large districts, or coalitions of smaller districts to offer a set of proven, whole school reform models to a number of schools in need of assistance, such as Title I schools. School leaders and their staffs would have opportunities to learn about programs, find some appropriate to their needs, ideally visit schools using the programs now, and match the programs with their own needs, derived from a thorough needs assessment. Ultimately, all school staff might vote, and at least 80% would have to vote in favor. The state or district would set aside federal or state funds to enable schools to afford the program they have chosen.
All schools in the state, district, or consortium that selected a given program could then form a network. The network would have regular meetings among principals, teachers of similar grades, and other job-alike staff members, to provide mutual help, share ideas, and interact cost-effectively with representatives of program providers. Network members would share a common language, and drawing from common experiences could be of genuine help to each other. The network arrangement would also reduce the costs of adopting each program, because it would create local scale to reduce costs of training and coaching.
The benefits of such a plan would be many. First, schools would be implementing programs they selected, and school staffs would be likely to put their hearts and minds into making the program work. Because the programs would all have been proven to be effective in the first place, they would be very likely to be measurably effective in these applications.
There might be schools that would initially opt not to choose anything, and this would be fine. Such schools would have opportunities each year to join colleagues in one of the expanding networks as they see that the programs are working in their own districts or regions.
As the system moved forward, it would become possible to do high-quality evaluations of each of the programs, contributing to knowledge of how each program works in particular districts or areas.
As the number of networked schools increased across a given state, it would begin to see widespread and substantial gains on state assessments. Further, all involved in this process would be learning not only the average effectiveness of each program, but also how to make each one work, and how to use programs to succeed with particular subgroups or solve particular problems. Networks, program leaders, and state, district, and school leaders, would get smarter each year about how to use proven programs to accelerate learning among students.
How could this all work at scale? The answer is that there are nonprofit organizations and companies that are already capable of working with hundreds of schools. At the elementary level, examples include the Children’s Literacy Initiative, Positive Action, and our own Success for All. At the secondary level, examples include BARR, the Talent Development High School, Reading Apprenticeship, and the Institute for Student Achievement. Other programs currently work with specific curricula and could partner with other programs to provide whole-school approaches, or some schools may only want or need to work on narrower problems. The programs are not that expensive at scale (few are more than $100 per student per year), and could be paid for with federal funds such as school improvement, Title I, Title II, and Striving Readers, or with state or local funds.
The proven programs do not ask schools to reinvent the wheel, but rather to put their efforts and resources toward adopting and effectively implementing proven programs and then making necessary adaptations to meet local needs and circumstances. Over time this would build capacity within each state, so that local people could take increasing responsibility for training and coaching, further reducing costs and increasing local “flavor.”
We’ve given mandates 30 years to show their effectiveness. ESSA offers new opportunities to do things differently, allowing states and districts greater freedom to experiment. It also strongly encourages the use of evidence. This would be an ideal time to try a simple idea: use what works.
This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation